This True Whole Wheat Changed How I Bake

Now it’s all I use for making bread

Photo: Kate Robertson

Bob Klein, the founder of Community Grains, changed just about everything about the way I think about and make bread.

It started when he visited me in New York in 2014 and we chatted about the importance of real whole grains. I knew much of what he pointed out, but Bob’s commitment to true whole wheat made an impression on me.

I’d been making bread my whole adult life, always trying to figure out something more honest and traditional in my mind — something great made with 100 percent true whole wheat. I’d had some successes, but not in the sense that it became routine or regular.

Then I moved to Berkeley in early 2015, where I thought I’d find what I was looking for at one of the neighborhood bakeries. I was disappointed at first: Most of the great bakers were barely using whole wheat. Most consumers, as so many bakers have discovered, seem to want white flour. I knew that great whole grain bread was achievable, but I didn’t see anyone doing it.

Then Bob started inviting me to tastings and encouraging me to use some of the wheat Community Grains was milling. He also introduced me to a few Bay Area bakers interested in using whole grain; he also took me to meet farmers who were growing the wheat Bob was selling. Around the same time, I met Ellen King at Hewn in Chicago, and June Russell of GrowNYC’s Greenmarket Regional Grains Project, and others around New York who are passionate about giving whole grains their rightful place in breadmaking.

Through these conversations, over the next year, I recognized that “sourdough” was not about flavor, but more about leavening. You can’t make good whole grain bread with commercial yeast — it won’t happen. But if you use a natural starter to make leavened bread (really a better term than “sourdough” because although a starter is acidic, it doesn’t turn all bread sour), you can use strong whole wheat flour and produce beautiful bread every time.

I got the hang of making naturally leavened bread while I was living out there, but when I returned east in 2016, I committed to baking with whole grains, using a natural starter, exclusively. I got my cookbook collaborator, Kerri Conan, hooked on it, too. Pretty soon, one of us was baking nearly every day. We steadily improved and tried nearly every flour we could get our hands on, from Great Value (i.e., Walmart) whole wheat to King Arthur to some rather esoteric stuff. I bought a small mill (the Komo Mio) and started trying single-batch wheat from all over the country.

Not surprisingly, among my favorites is one of Bob’s, a wheat called Patwin, grown by a farmer I’ve met named Fritz Durst. Patwin is a hard white winter wheat that’s easy to work with, develops strength fast, and tastes terrific. (As you might expect, some easy-to-work-with flour doesn’t taste great, while some great-tasting flour is hard to turn into good bread.) More recently, we’ve reached out to Steve Jones at The Bread Lab for recommendations, and have been encouraged, as our results get better and better.

This is a journey, and Kerri and I are turning it into a book, one we will show you next year. But I don’t think I would’ve gone down this road without Bob’s guidance and encouragement.

Has published 30 books, including How to Cook Everything and VB6: The Case for Part-Time Veganism. Newsletter at markbittman.com.

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